The Kremlin is trying to stifle Radio Free Europe — and its audience is exploding

“It was basically like telling our audience to go away,” said Jamie Fly, CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyas the organization has been known since a merger in 1976.

This labeling would interfere with the mission of the private non-profit organization at a fundamental level. So Fly told me, “we refused to comply.”

What followed was a storm of fines – ultimately worth $13 million. In May 2021, bailiffs arrived at the network’s office in Moscow to begin enforcement efforts to collect the fines.

The timing seemed anything but a coincidence. The Russian government launched bankruptcy proceedings just as the war in Ukraine began last month. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – which receives much of its funding from the same US agency that oversees Voice of America – has shut down much of its operations in Russia, just as many international journalists have been forced to flee the country , social media platforms were blocked or banned and Russian independent media were silenced.

This is all part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to wage information warfare in Russia to eliminate any possible contradiction to the party line that the Ukrainian incursion is not an invasion or a war, but a “special military operation” necessary for national security.

But the story did not end there. The Russian people are looking for information, as they can. The proof is in the numbers, Fly told me.

In the first three weeks after the invasion, page views from Russia to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty sites soared to 26 million, more than 50% more than an earlier corresponding period. Russia’s video views on their YouTube channels more than tripled to 237 million. And this was happening despite the blocking of sites in Russia.

“Despite the pressure from the Kremlin, people still crave the truth,” Fly told me. “To some degree, they see through the propaganda and they want to explore broader sources of information.”

He and his colleagues are particularly proud of reports from the ground in Ukraine, such as a March 10 video titled “Ukrainian Troops Attempt to Drive Russian Forces Out of Village Near kyiv.” There have been detailed reports of civilian deaths in Mariupol and of mortar fire directed at the Ukrainian Interior Minister and journalists.

Many listeners and viewers bypass Russian media barricades through the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) and “mirror sites” that duplicate content but use a different URL.

This reminds Fly how the Russians during the Cold War was trying to tune into Radio Free Europe by fiddling with the radio dial: The Kremlin usually changed frequencies in an effort to obscure what it considered dangerous American propaganda. “Unfortunately, we are going back to our roots,” he said.

There was a price to pay beyond fines and regulatory hassles. In recent weeks, four freelance journalists who work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been arrested or harassed by Russian police. Many others have been branded as individual foreign agents.

“It’s scary, but total control of information has always been the goal,” Fly told me. The organization has filed a lawsuit against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights, although it is unclear how a verdict would be implemented.

(Against the evidence, the Kremlin has long denied hampering press rights in Russia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Last year complaints about the obstruction of journalistic work “a fiction and a lie”, insisting that “we salute the activities of the American media in our country”.)

Suspending the Moscow office after 31 years of operation was a blow, Fly told me. But through freelancers, audience-generated tips and videos, and other means, “we always try to report from the ground and we don’t give up on Russian audiences.”

If information is power, it’s a power struggle for the ages.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

Mary I. Bruner